DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

Article Summary

Secession occurs when a portion of a state breaks away either to form its own sovereign country or to join with another state. Because secessionist conflicts are essentially contests over territory, theories of state-breaking presuppose various positions regarding political legitimacy. Most theorists now acknowledge that a group might have the right to secede when it has been treated sufficiently unjustly, but a growing minority (especially nationalists who trumpet the importance of political self-determination) now contend that groups sometimes have the right to political divorce even in the absence of injustice.

When state-breaking is uncontested (as in Norway’s secession from Sweden or when the Czech and Slovak Republics mutually agreed to separate), it raises fewer moral issues and practical problems. In most cases, however, separatist groups find their parent states unwilling to relinquish any territory. Thus, whether peaceful (like the Quebecois in Canada) or violent (like the Chechens in Russia), the world currently houses a number of secessionists conflicts. These contests raise the question of when, and under what conditions, a separatist group has the right to secede.

Although international law endorses a right to secede only for overseas colonies, political theorists generally adopt a more permissive stance, positing a unilateral right to secede for groups whose governments treat them unjustly. It is highly controversial, however, whether a group can have a right to secede from a perfectly just state. Most who concede that a group might have a remedial right to independence when necessary to escape injustice also believe that a legitimate state retains its privileged position of dominion over its territory as long as it does not act unjustly. For these theorists, there can be no primary right to political divorce in the absence of injustice. In opposition to this, a small but growing minority of authors invoke the value of self-determination in defence of a primary right to secede from perfectly legitimate states.

The most popular proposal among those willing to question the territorial integrity of legitimate states is the principle of national self-determination, the view that each nation has a primary right to its own state (Miller 1995; Margalit and Raz 1990). There may be conditions on any given political divorce (just as there are often conditions placed on marital divorces), but nationalists typically assert that each nation stands in a privileged position of moral dominion over its own affairs, a position which entitles it to create its own sovereign nation-state. Arguments in favour of the nationalist principle vary, but many emphasize both 1) that a nation’s health directly affects its members’ welfare and that 2) political self-determination allows nations to bolster their health.

This argument is obviously appealing, but secession involves taking territory away from an existing state, so we must balance the nationalist’s case against the state’s moral claim to its territory. There is no consensus on what grounds a state’s claim to its territory, but some contend that political states are justified in coercing their constituents because peace and security is possible only when we all follow a single set of rules, and the only way for one set of rules to gain unanimous allegiance is if they are non-consensually imposed upon all those who are territorially contiguous.

Assuming that something like this account of political legitimacy is correct, we can now weigh a nation’s claim to territory (based upon the importance of national self-determination) against the state’s claim to its territory (based on the importance of ensuring peace and security). As a nationalist is apt to point out, this account of political legitimacy leaves ample room for nationalist state-breaking because, wherever the separatist nation can perform the requisite political functions, the existing state has no justification for its non-consensual coercion. In other words, when a nation is sufficiently large, wealthy, politically organized and territorially contiguous, it can secede and thereby enhance its national self-determination without jeopardizing the benefits of political stability.

Notice, however, that even if politically viable nations have a right to secede, those nations which lack the requisite political capabilities will not have a legitimate claim to independence. And this may indicate that, even in those cases in which a nation has a right to secede, it will not be the importance of the nation’s cultural self-determination which grounds its claim; rather, it will be its political capacities. If so, then there is a sense in which a group’s cultural status is beside the point; the crucial variable will be the separatists’ ability to govern the contested territory in a safe and just manner (Wellman 2005). Of course, it may well be that most separatists groups are in fact motivated by nationalist aspirations, but those nations whose claims are legitimate will be justified by their political capabilities, not their cultural attributes.

Finally, even if many groups have the primary right to secede, it does not follow automatically that we should revise domestic constitutions or even international law to recognize and enforce these rights. In fact, some caution that constitutionally guaranteeing the right to political divorce would corrupt democratic deliberation because distinct groups might threaten to secede in order to gain political leverage (Sunstein 1991). And others warn that amending international law to allow for unilateral rights to secede in the absence of injustice would create perverse incentives. In Allen Buchanan’s view, for instance, if international law permits only a remedial right to secede, then this will motivate governments to act justly, since they will know that the international community sides with just governments in secessionist contests (Buchanan 2004). If the international law were to endorse a primary right to secede, on the other hand, then not only would governments lose some of their incentive to act justly, they would be disinclined to extend special collective rights to cultural minorities for fear that any additional bit of sovereignty will make each of these groups more interested in, and more viable as, an independent state. Not everyone shares these fears (Copp 1998; Wellman 2005), but clearly we should not enact laws enforcing primary secessionist rights unless we have good reason to believe these laws would produce more good than harm.

Citing this article:
Wellman, Christopher Heath. Secession, 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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